Writing is a complex craft. I shall minimize the vast, laborious and mysterious process of how a work of fiction or non-fiction emerges from the nothingness of the blank page thusly:
A writer reads. A writer churns out pages of text. A writer researches. A writer churns out pages of text. A writer re-reads. A writer re-writes pages of text. A writer reads...
In that tidal wash of absorbing and producing, a writer is bound to come up with a plot point, a character, a theme or even a passage that another writer has already written. It happens. And when it happens, the writer adds 'writer weeping' to the above tasks on the 'To Do' list. The honorable writer--of which there are many--recognizes when she has stolen, and she rips out this part of her piece and condemns it to the virtual dustbin.
A writer should never, ever, steal from another writer. Ever. (And don't quote me T.S. Elliot. Seriously, don't.)
Unfortunately for us all, both the publishing industry and the public enjoy celebrating our thieves and our cheaters. Tell me you don't know these names: Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, Jonah Lehrer, James Frey. This (brief) sampling of three journalists and one memoirist have all reaped rewards for their (alleged) fabricating and their (alleged) stealing.
My personal favorite story, though, is that of Kaavya Viswanathan. She's the Harvard student who submitted a sample of her Young Adult novel as her admissions essay and was rewarded with an agent, publisher, book and movie deal while still a freshman at Harvard.
Viswanathan (allegedly) ripped off several authors in her bid to become an accidentally-discovered literary talent. She saved the most blatant (alleged) robbery for Megan McCafferty, an established and popular author of Young Adult literature.
This is heinous and calculated and sad on many levels: Viswanathan was saavy enough to guess that a Harvard admissions counselor is probably not going to be current on her YA lit reading; Viswanathan strategized correctly that if she covered the (allegedly) stolen material with details of her Indian heritage she might blind the admissions counselor and the agent and the publisher to the (allegedly) plagerized material with the sparkles of multiculturalism; and, finally, Viswanathan wagered that any controversy that might surface should she be caught would only result in her becoming more notorious, more famous.
And by golly, she was correct on all fronts. Although her 2-book deal and the planned movie adaptation were cancelled upon the discovery of her (alleged) plagiarism, Viswanathan (of course) went on to graduate from Harvard, land herself one of the coveted spots in a writing workshop taught by Jamaica Kincaid, and matriculate into law school. (As an aside, one can't help but wonder how much Harvard The Institution had to do with this redemption. The hallowed Harvard was as culpable as Viswanathan, after all.)
Plagiarism pays. Thievery translates into fame. The publishing world, rather cynically, knows that it can sell so many more books of the fallen and the shamed than they can of the honorable and the obscure. Stephen Glass, Jonah Lehrer, James Frey have published since the exposure of their fraudulence. And they have--arguably--sold more books because of their infamy.
Yes, I have effectively made the case for robbery. And if your goal as a writer is notoriety, go for it. But for the true writers out there, do the honorable thing and stay away from plagiarizing the works of your fellow authors. It's never OK. Even when Harvard and the publishing industry reward you.